Decolonizing the Anthropocene

Does Mother Earth have rights? Can glaciers listen? Should invisible elves be consulted about development projects? If you find these questions fanciful, please bear with me. I may not convince you to answer them in the affirmative, but I think I can convince you to take them seriously. Here goes.

The Anthropocene concept asks us to imagine a world in which humans act as a dominant geophysical force on the global scale—a force powerful enough to melt the polar ice caps, surpass planetary boundaries, and even bring about a sixth mass extinction. It’s as if we’re an asteroid colliding with the Earth and altering its orbit.

As I have discussed in previous posts, we have no familiar way to imagine ourselves in this form. Are we planetary engineers? …a voracious global parasite? …an invasive species falling victim to its own short-term reproductive success? …or are we simply individuals with varying levels of vulnerability and culpability? We are in desperate need of an inclusive but differentiated, critical but hopeful, concrete but open-ended self-image for the new epoch.

For this reason, the Anthropocene will necessarily be a time of experimentation and ferment in the sciences and humanities.  This moment is not especially exhilarating, what with the widespread ecological disasters we face. But it’s one that I think we should nevertheless seize. How we answer basic questions about the ontogenesis and composition of the Anthropocene world will have profound implications for how we know, value, and dwell in that world. In other words, how we answer these questions will shape how and for whom we go about making the world habitable.

My first post on this blog probed what I consider to be a nearly universal, if often implicit, aspect of Anthropocene narratives—their cosmopolitanism. To face the challenges of an anthropogenic epoch, we must transcend our differences and seek global solutions appropriate to the scale of our planetary agency. Who could object to that? Certainly not I.

I am, however, concerned about how this noble proposition effaces systematic differences of power—entrenched inequalities that predetermine what this cosmopolitan world looks like, who belongs in it, and how they can represent themselves. Why, after all, should the Anthropocene be any different in this respect from our outgoing epoch?

It is, therefore, vital that we exercise caution in how we seize this moment of experimentation and ferment, lest it simply reinforce the status quo. There are numerous tangents to pursue here; inclusivity has many dimensions and presents many challenges. For now, I’d like to highlight the challenge of decolonizing the Anthropocene or, more specifically, of linking our conversation about habitability to broader decolonizing movements.

What, then, does this effort entail? This is a much bigger question than I can answer in a blog post, and it’s one that I could never pretend to answer alone. I come at this question from a position of relative privilege and thus do not really have a firsthand understanding of what (de)colonization entails. That said, I would like to suggest a few possible avenues for further discussion.

Decolonization, at its most basic, is about dismantling the epistemic practices and political institutions of Euro-American domination and replacing them with alternatives that respect self-determination, equality, and difference. Firstly, then, it seems self-evident that any conversation about habitability in the Anthropocene should include diverse voices. This point sits somewhat awkwardly with this blog’s current list of regular contributors and is why we are working to expand it.

More broadly, though, if we are going to seize the Anthropocene as a moment for rethinking our most basic assumptions about the world, then we must foster a variety of forums in which diverse voices can shape that process of rethinking. The conventional venues for academic knowledge production—labs, seminars, conferences—are by no means irrelevant, but they must not be the only venues in which this conversation is taking place. Collaboration, citizen science, and other forms of public engagement strike me as absolutely crucial.

Toward that end, those of us who come to this conversation from a more or less conventional academic angle should take time to learn and implement decolonizing methodologies. This means being willing to surrender some of the power that comes with conventional approaches to research while ensuring that the knowledge we co-produce is relevant, accessible, and in no way harmful to broader publics.

Further, our conversation will, I hope, seek insights from a diverse array of philosophical traditions, but especially from those that have been marginalized by positivist paradigms of thought, inquiry, and rule. Indigenous scholars and activists like E. Richard Atleo (Umeek), Winona LaDuke, Gregory Cajete, and Leanne Betasamosake Simpson have offered powerful insights into our contemporary ecological crisis and into how we might begin recovering from it. Their philosophies suggest a number of alternatives to the anthropocentrism, shortsightedness, and reductionism that underpin global ecological crisis.

Needless to say, such insights are by no means exclusive to Indigenous peoples of North America; they are part of diverse philosophical traditions around the world, including those of the West.  I don’t have space to further explore these ideas here, but I intend to do so in future posts.

Here there is also a real possibility of connecting with political-ecological movements outside the confines of the academy. As Marisol de la Cadena has discussed in the context of South America, Indigenous environmental practices have defied containment as “cultural beliefs,” equivalent to religion and thus separate from the science of government. Instead, they have found their way into the public political sphere and in some cases have even secured legal recognition for the rights of sentient earth-beings. Likewise, if we approach the Anthropocene through a praxis of radical openness and inclusivity, questions about whether mountains have rights, glaciers listen, or invisible beings have a say in development become both reasonable and politically actionable.

But the point here is not to fetishize any particular philosophical tradition or class of traditions. Rather, the point is to expand the spectrum of traditions that shape our understanding of contemporary global problems. Colonized and marginalized peoples have far more to say about the challenges of the Anthropocene than they have opportunities to make their voices heard. It is time we listen—and I mean truly listen—to what they have to say.

Note: The so-called “ontological” or “posthuman” turn in the social sciences and humanities should also, I will argue in a future post, play a prominent role in rethinking what it means to be (non)human in the Anthropocene.  But it’s crucial, as Zoe Todd has recently argued, not to focus on Euro-American philosophies to the exclusion of Indigenous philosophies, particularly when ideas from the latter often inform the former in ways that go unacknowledged.

7 thoughts on “Decolonizing the Anthropocene

  1. Thanks for a very thoughtful post. You pointedly write: “The conventional venues for academic knowledge production—labs, seminars, conferences—are by no means irrelevant, but they must not be the only venues in which our conversation is taking place. Collaboration, citizen science, and other forms of public engagement strike me as absolutely crucial.”
    I could not agree more. I believe that there is a very large chasm between the state of knowledge and discussion in scientific circles and that of the general educated public (that is, intelligent people not closely involved with current science developments). This is a serious hinder to any progress towards a sustainable world. And one in which we scientists have a great opportunity to contribute. Blogging, as you do, is definitely a worth contribution.

    • Thanks for the feedback! I really hope that our blog will help to make debates around the Anthropocene concept accessible beyond the academy. Only time will tell. I also hope that this blog will be but one among a variety of venues in which these ideas are debated by diverse publics.

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  3. Another wonderful post, Noah–and I completely agree about the real need to bring in ways of seeing that are distant from our own. So the question I have is voiced with respect–but, when claims about the rights or interests of non-human entities (Mother Earth/glaciers/elves) are made, who in fact gives voice to them in the human arena? To be perfectly frank I’m a bit resistant to those claims for the same reason that I resist appeals to God that fundamentalists make . . . it is typically they themselves who claim the authority to speak in the name of the higher power. This discussion came forward in environmental ethics with the famous Christopher Stone “Do Trees Have Standing” article, and the arguments around it. As I write this I’m starting to think that I don’t want to be in the position of discounting, say, Icelanders’ appeals to what the elves think . . . but that is not because I believe in elves, but rather because I respect Icelanders’ right (I guess) to, well, inhabit their places in the way that accords with their own culture. (That’s to a limit of course—I’d be less happy if the culture called for some damaging actions with big external costs.)

    • Regarding the “who” and “how” of representing the claims of non-/more-than-humans, this is definitely a challenging question, and I agree that it can be a slippery slope to some very undesirable politics. Chelsea Chapman has written an interesting essay on the question of: if we are to take Indigenous ontologies seriously, then what about those of Dominionists, who see energy extraction as the fulfillment of our divinely ordained destiny? I don’t think there is any straightforward solution to this dilemma, but that doesn’t deter me from wanting to open up the ontological assumptions that constrain the horizons of ecological politics. It’s a difficult and risky proposition, but then so is the positivist paradigm under which we’ve been operating. Latour and Stengers have done compelling work on this matter, as have some of the Indigenous scholars I cited in my post. One of my upcoming posts will be about cosmopolitics (as opposed to cosmopolitanism), which is one way of approaching the practicalities of these ideas.

      • Let me push on one point just a bit further–the unfortunate implication of even-handedness aside (i.e. having to take Dominionists seriously) what does it mean for me as an outsider to take an indigenous ontology seriously? That I myself believe in elves (say)? Or that I just bracket off beliefs I don’t have, but agree to respect the indigenous practice for, so to speak, political reasons—i.e. out of respect for their right to organize their lives as they want. (Is this where the people you mention go?) I think this perhaps connects with big discussions in political philosophy about the role of religion in the liberal state, and the idea of state “neutrality.”

  4. Another great question! A full answer is beyond what I can accomplish here, but I’ll start with this notion of belief. We tend to grant a relatively narrow spectrum of (mostly European) thought traditions the status of philosophy and/or knowledge while framing everything else as belief. Most of us have never seen a virus, but we “know” they exist because the experts tell us they do and because we have firsthand experiences with viral illness and medical intervention. Things like elves are not all that different: in particular contexts, people don’t just “believe” in such things; they experience and thereby know them, even if the techniques of technoscience wouldn’t necessarily confirm their knowledge. Therefore, I want to shift the conversation so that we are talking about different philosophies and knowledges rather than about a separate realm of beliefs. I want to posit minoritized ontological propositions (e.g., that elves dwell in the landscape and need to be consulted prior to development) as philosophies that make claims to literal representations of the world—claims that have the potential to be empirically valid in the context of their practice. The same is true for technoscience, which would not be practically efficacious without the supporting philosophies and institutions of the bureaucratic state. To answer your question more directly, this approach involves a sort of radical empiricism, wherein we recognize the contingency of our own ontological assumptions and try to remain open to experiences that would only be possible under a different set of assumptions (I’m drawing here on Paul Nadasdy and Michael Jackson). To me, this is not just a matter of letting people organize their lives as they see fit. As Latour has argued, it’s a challenge to build more inclusive institutions which, instead of beginning with such a strong but usually unacknowledged commitment to a particular set of ontological propositions, make the explicit, slow, deliberate, and inclusive co-construction of those propositions part of the institutional work (see Stengers as well). The point, moreover, is not that all ontological propositions are equally valid. Rather, the aim is to avoid so strongly privileging one set of ontological propositions over others—e.g., categories of natural vs. supernatural or external/real vs. internal/imagined—so we can open up some space for a more inclusive praxis of habitability.

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